GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER: RYAN’S BLOOD ON THE TRACKS | 2023-01-16

As if attempting to take a stab at reimagining your reported ‘favorite album of all time’ would not be intimidating enough, restless and prolific singer/songwriter Ryan Adams chose to indulge in the challenge while playing in God mode. Shortly after delving into the hounds of rust belt hell via his recent unsolicited interpretation of Bruce Springsteen’s marquee project Nebraska, the 48-year old poet and musician this time saw fit to up the storied and timeless ante by borrowing from his ‘favorite songwriter of all time and spirit animal’ Bob Dylan. Reinventing the Nobel Prize winner’s iconic fifteenth studio album Blood on the Tracks, Adams’s own version of the 10-track LP appeared as yet another free digital download on his PaxAm label on Christmas’s Eve—a festive offering of sorts.

In his defense, the former Whiskeytown founder self-exculpated the covers album release by pleading ‘sacrilege’ over the stint, yet rebutting how he would be ‘doing it anyway’, prefacing how ‘it’s important to stay on your toes, and frankly after this beautiful year of climbing this mountain again my body is broken but my mind is pacing the floors… so it’s time to get busy.’ Lest people forget, Blood on the Tracks was the seven-time Grammy Award nominee’s sixth studio project unveiled during the course of the 2022 calendar year (adding to Chris, Romeo & Juliet, FM, Devolver, and the aforementioned Nebraska), annihilating previous personal and industry records at once.

Taking Adams’s recent DIY, self-released, and up-for-it ethos into account, the musical heresy was bound to be naturally deconsecrated. A somewhat reduced—and contextually enforced—instrumental backline underscores his rendition of the folk rock pièce de résistance, while slyly walking a thin tightrope between homage and re-appropriation as far as the performance committed to tape is concerned. Most crucially, his PaxAm re-issue adds a whooping extra twenty minutes of runtime to Dylan’s more contained 52, accrued by virtue of more or less extensive instrumental codas tacked on to cuts such as “Simple Twist of Fate”, “You’re a Big Girl Now”, as well as project bookends “Shelter from the Storm” and “Buckets of Rain”.

While adding more than a third of previously inexistent material to a work of art universally considered flawless might sound like a non-starter to purists, such musical fat on this thing is easily cut, and never in the way of the essential message conveyance on this update. Lending the Ryan Adams treatment to such legendary and to a certain extent untouchable recordings also meant demystifying what for many—through little fault of their on, mind yo—is a fourth-wall relationship to these American classics. For Adams neither modernizes nor museum-ifies these vignettes. He just merely performs them. That’s a straight A for making the effort alone.

As recently argued within the context and realm of him gifting Nebraska to the world—another unattainable record if there ever was another one—the Jacksonville, NC-native is bound to his spurs of creativity much like a scissor to its two arms. Blood on the Tracks was apparently arranged, rehearsed, and recorded all whilst fighting post-tour blues this past December, following his most recent US fall/winter live leg. If one can pass us the analogy; nobody would bat an eye if your favorite <insert here> basketball player hit the court for a couple free throws the day after the big match—like it or not, much like any professional athlete of record would do in their line of sports, Ryan Adams poured his blood, sweat, and tears on these tracks.

In the same breath, even a cursory scan of some of the verses and stanzas echoing loud almost fifty years after they were initially written, could almost have one wonder whether they were just chucked down by latter-day Adams himself. Take the brilliant and malignant opening batch from “Idiot Wind”: “Someone’s got it in for me / They’re planting stories about in the press / Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out quick / But when they will I can only guess“—one can’t but picture the alt-country minstrel double checking his notes on whether it’s really a cover he’s recording. Elsewhere, the poignancy and earnestness with which they’re delivered make the following sets of words from the penultimate cut sound and read just like they originally came from Adams’ pen: Suddenly I turned around / And she was standing there / With silver bracelets on her wrists / And flowers in her hair / She walked up to me so gracefully / And took my crown of thorns / “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give ya / Shelter from the storm”.

Admittedly a tad too late, but here’s a fat disclaimer: much like with Springsteen’s Nebraska, on Blood on the Tracks liberties were taken. Verses were cut, song tempos were altered, solos and instrumental interludes were added and removed, cover arts were reimagined (see below). It notwithstanding, the creative process’s resin extrapolated from the source leaves us with a watertight opening quartet of tunes, making up what’s Adams’s most focused, original, and accessible portion on the whole project. By contrast, the midsection gets a little rougher around its edges, and frequently risks to trail off on a number already patience-demanding such as “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, potentially causing some listeners to throw in the towel halfway through.

The two-pronged ending is worth sticking around for, though. Adams’s “Shelter from the Storm” becomes a sweet little groovy acoustic serenade with lots to write home about. From its soft and tender instrumentation, to the former Cardinal’s reassuring intonation and diction, the cut gently skids through its four minutes and change before giving way to an impromptu six-minute instrumental coda that, unlike some of the earlier ones on the record, ends up sticking its tasteful and gratifying landing in spite of a few lick blemishes here and there. The exploit pulls its curtains scored by the eleven-minute sonic odyssey of “Buckets of Rain”, a frizzy and buoyant outro that cues up another six-string fade out before morphing into a blistering cold droney outflow—a callous reminder that by staying true to his unrestrained self, Ryan Adams managed to do away with any musical apprehension for the salacious crime he committed.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

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RYAN’S REASON TO BELIEVE | 2022-12-12

On Wednesday 7th of December, alt-country singer/songwriter Ryan Adams did the unthinkable only a few years ago and gave away a full front-to-back rendition of Bruce Springsteen‘s revered 1982 classic Nebraska, making this collection of covers his fifth official studio album release in the current solar year. While rewriting musical history by way of re-dressing a set of original songs via his trademark guises is nothing inherently new for the PaxAm label owner—he successfully and fiercely charted said territory the first time eight years ago with Taylor Swift’s 1989—issuing five distinct projects in less than seven calendar months is something unparalleled and unprecedented even for a prolific author such as himself. Yet don’t get it twisted; less than standing as desperate industrious attempts at morphing into the present day media landscape’s content output expectations, the 10-track ode to one of Adams’s most evident influences is but an expression of endurance.

Progress through action and creation—the form and pacing of the 48-year old Jacksonville, NC-native’s musical portfolio growth of late can’t pretend it’s hiding behind a necessity of unabashed fast-forwardness. This might be where the rubber meets the road: since his comeback unplugged oeuvre Wednesdays in December 2020, the former Whiskeytowner has released seven LPs. That’s a number as big as his worshipped feline household companion’s purported lives, for comparison’s sake. While it’s true that the buck has to stop somewhere, if there is anything that the past twelve months have taught legions of DRA disciples, is that a storyteller as gifted and impervious as Ryan Adams can only survive as a relentless musical empresario. So much for having additional out-of-the-box records in the can, ready to be unveiled in 2022 as originally announced in the lead up to his summer album FM.

Truly and honestly, we can’t say he did not warn us. There were a slew of presages worked into this past years’ tea leaves pointing to some resemblance of boundless creative manifestation, acting as some sort of be-all and end-all for the heartland rocker. A higher faith of sorts to devote one’s self to. With the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, one could easily point at his recurrent generous live impromptu sessions on Instagram, the engrossing runtimes and setlists of his more recent three-hour long solo acoustic shows, or even the trickery surrounding an alternate Boss-indebted sleeve for his inaugural trilogy album Wednesdays, as self-evident clues leading to something akin to the gesamtkunstwerk of studio debauchery and stern live renditioning that his own personal interpretation of Nebraska panned out to be.

What matters though is the substance, the artistic elixir; not the format. Nebraska is his second free digital download gift to fans in quick succession, following rapidly on the heels of the brilliant and neat Devolver. With it, DRA seems to self-fulfil the reassurance that he can rest on the grounded belief that effortless creative sprawls are there for him to be captured and channelled outwardly. Whether they translate into industry ruffian studio albums or self-recorded giveaways, matters only peripherally (and to those troubled enough to care). The whole point of being Ryan Adams is to be afforded the creative and marketing license to retain the unfiltered, untamed, and unedited impetus that always accompanied him along his near thirty years worth of discography—irrespective of whether that’s true blue country on Jacksonville City Nights, heartland rock on his self-titled, or heavy metal on Orion.

Nebraska, much like say Devolver, the PaxAm Single Series, or his more recent Instagram live sessions, speaks of the auteur working out, attending his regular gym sesh. In a not too dissimilar fashion to the source material creator’s modus operandi—who in his Born to Run memoir revealed how his songwriting prowess was shaped more by method and consistency than bursts of uncalled for inspiration—Ryan Adams can’t not write and put out music. So why not wholly condoning his embrace of such an un-produced urge by way of leveraging his modern day freedom from contractual or material constraints to opt into a ‘the more the merrier’ ethos? Lest we misunderstand, the approach is additive, not discrete.

While we all eagerly await Bruce to unearth his own lost drum-loop based synth-washed album, let this project carry us in a similarly unassuming yet stark fashion, all the while musing over what Springsteen’s artistic trajectory could have been in the 90s, if only. Safe to say, most of us will take this over any other disingenuous boomer bait any day of the week. How could we not: this is Ryan’s early Christmas present. Most of us will eventually come around to pardon and appreciate what’s arguably the most prolific songwriter of his generation for speeding up “Atlantic City“, chopping and screwing “Johnny 99“, or going full analogue live take on the final three cuts on his version of Nebraska—for most of us have understood that we can’t have Heartbreak-era Ryan Adams, if we can’t accept post-2020 Ryan Adams.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 2022 IS BACKLOADED | 2022-11-17

Any calendar year’s fourth quarter act invariably sprouts summational thinking on the part of music pundits the world over, thrusting them into cynically whittled down crop of best (and worst…) of new music as if their life depended on it. As it turns out, 2022 appears to be making said faux-editorialized process ever so slightly more difficult, by virtue of above-average quality drops peppered throughout the last two eligible months of October and November. We’d go as far as to claim that the current one might be the most backloaded revolution around the sun in semi-recent memory—potentially of the last decade. This essay sets out to highlight a round up of but a few of the miscellaneous late-into-the-year releases standing to corroborate and qualify such advanced hypothesis. And to think it’s doing so without exhibiting other potential heavyweight honourable mentions worthy of making the cut, such as the intelligently composed and astutely assembled The Car by the Arctic Monkeys, Freddie Gibbs‘s aspirational glam rap opera $oul $old $eparately, and Canadian treasure Neil Young‘s self-effacing fifteenth studio album with Crazy Horse, World Record. Or even Taylor Swift’s open-hearted confessional Midnights, rounding up with Nas’ latter-day-high King’s Disease, attained via his third cold-blooded single-handed trilogy instalment.

A subdued and unsuspecting mid-October Friday saw the return of exquisite Mississippi-hailing singer/songwriter Cory Branan, who with his latest 11-track exploit When I Go I Ghost fiercely put an end to a five year mouthwatering musical drought, dating back to his last studio body of work: 2017’s mixed bag Adios. Unlike his previous, his newest record is a superlative exercise in no frills alt country and then some—flirting equally exuberantly with blue collar heartland rock (particularly on lead single “When In Rome, When In Memphis“, but also on “Room 101” and “Come On If You Wanna Come”), heavy garage rock (“When I Leave Here”), as well as lightweight power pop (“One Happy New Year”). It might be stating the plain as far as the Branan-initiated are concerned, but one of the sharpest traits that sets him apart from the dime-a-dozen pack of mainstream-adjacent country exponents is his refined lyrical sensibility, exhuming a supremely distilled ability to sound both emotionally relatable and eruditely unrivalled at the same time.

When I Go I Ghost is no exception in how it launders and delivers witty quotables and earnest diaristic entries alike—all set to carefully curated rootsy sonic backdrops, relying primarily on Branan’s still criminally underrated guitar playing, as well as sparsely interwoven keys of all strands. Frankly, each of the eleven records sequenced on the project could warrant at the very minimum one sampled litmus test, yet we’ll limit the textual road show to just a few here. Start with “O Charlene“‘s sudden lightheartedness of surrender, which might be one of the most unexplored themes in rock music—especially by men: “Cause the birds are still singing and the sun still burns / Swing low, diminishing returns / And I’m finally done with all my trying to get it right / I drink a flat Coca Cola in the cold sunlight“). Meanwhile, “That Look I Lost“‘s romantic ambivalence, doubling as one of the stickiest refrains on the album, makes for an all too familiar internal struggle to those fighting back their natural ageing inertia: “And I’ll spend the rest of my life / Dying to find / That look I lost, that look I lost / Dying to find that look I lost in her eye“.

Another unassuming dark horse eruptively claiming high altitude spots on many a year-end lists in 2022 has got to be The Loneliest Time, 36-year-old Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen’s sixth studio album. On our part, we did our best by warning Interweb argonauts about CRJ’s impending pop doom ahead of time, but boy did the feast not disappoint. Hitting the shelves one week after Branan on 21st October, the Interscope-corralled set of synth-pop galore aptly packs thirteen anthemic vignettes of prima facie alienated melancholic catchiness. Case in point, third promo single leading up to the full release, “Talking to Yourself“, culling the immediate resonance and impact of few other modern pop cuts. Everything from its slick and glossy production to the undeniably familiar verse-pre-chorus-bridge-chorus leitmotiv is bona fide song crafting perfection. In the same breath, “Joshua Tree“, at number two on the tracklist, dabbles as much in pop rock instrumentation as in synthetic pop incantation, only to fold before the melted cheese stickiness of its refrain: “I need it (Da, da-da-da-da-da) / I feel it (Da, da-da-da-da-da) / I see it (Da, da-da-da-da-da) / I know it (Da, da-da-da-da-da) / I own it (Da, da-da-da-da-da) / I show it (Da, da-da-da-da-da)”.

Jepsen—who on The Loneliest Time enjoyed studio co-signs from behind-the-scenes songwriting royalties Rostam Batmanglij and Alex Hope, as well as her longtime collaborator Tavish Crowe—is the type of music creator who can disguise a quasi-interlude into one of the strongest takeaway from a premiere body of work (“Sideways“), in spite (or precisely because of) sugary and borderline cringeworthy verses such as “One more cutе disaster / Said, ‘I love you’ twice / Bеfore you could even answer / It’s hard here in paradise“. Contemporaneously, the Grammy-nominated artist is one to sequence absolute album standout “Bad Thing Twice” as late as number ten on the record’s D-side, willingly entering into the risk of leaking potential listenership along the way before delivering a masterclass in Dua Lipa-like heartbreak slapper material. Sonically and thematically, The Loneliest Time is such a resiliently robust collection of songs; one’d be hard-pressed to spot a lull moment or snoozer on this thing (perhaps “So Nice” on an antonymic day?). Even its pocket of digital-only bonus tracks is worth sticking around for.

Surely, the heaviest name to drop on this year’s backload is Bruce Springsteen‘s, whose 21st studio album Only The Strong Survive sees him interpreting custom solo renditions of fifteen classic soul exploits. Stemming from the storied and iconic back-catalogues of Motown, Gamble & Huff, Stax, and similar fixtures, these recordings double as The Boss’s second collection of covers to date (following the Grammy-winning We Shall Overcome in 2006). By his own admission, the handpicked selection of evergreen R&B tunes enabled the 73-year old “to make an album where I just sang. […] I’ve taken my inspiration from Levi Stubbs, David Ruffin, Jimmy Ruffin, the Iceman Jerry Butler, Diana Ross, Dobie Gray, and Scott Walker, among many others.” Further elaborating on the revisited creative concept through a dedicated announcement clip, the OG New Jerseyan declared: “I’ve tried to do justice to them all—and to the fabulous writers of this glorious music. My goal is for the modern audience to experience its beauty and joy, just as I have since I first heard it. I hope you love listening to it as much as I loved making it.”

As far as the lead up to the full release on 11th November was concerned, the initial electric sprawl and edginess of “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)“, originally written and performed by Frank Wilson in 1965, gave way to the beloved Commodores classic “Nightshift“—easily one of the album’s pièces de résistance, and an improbable rendition for the heartland rocker to hop on if there ever was one. It’s arguably on this track, more than any other in this retro crop, that Springsteen reached a vocal apex insofar as how clear, tight-commanded, and ebullient his windpipes sound. The watertight and sturdy “Don’t Play That Song” served as the final advance preview for the project, turning a bona fide chart-topper originally authored by Ahmet Ertegun and Betty Nelson (later popularized by Aretha Franklin in 1970) into a carefree brass fest set to Bruce’s cheeky yet wholly believable croonerisms. Elsewhere on the record, “When She Was My Girl“, “Turn Back the Hands of Time“, and “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” stand as further unmissable highlights—decisively turning Only The Strong Survive into an unavoidable candidate in any AOTY race.

At long last, on 17th November trailblazing and envelope-pushing LA boyband BROCKHAMPTON found good riddance of its interior demons by demystifying unreasonable longevity expectations for a coming-of-age group of a dozen through the purge of their swan-song, The Family. Just about making this year’s consideration’s cut, this is the Kevin Abstract-led group’s seventh and final album in six years. It follows their 2021 bloated mixed bag ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE, and rides on the sappy coattails of their hiatus announcement at the beginning of this year. In keeping with the San Marcos, Texas-gestated collective’s unhinged explicitness, lead feline single “Big Pussy” came through from out of left field with a sprawling and out-of-control free jazz instrumental hold, shape-shifting into patch-worked tape-montage wizardry, only to feature the sole Abstract on the mic—much like on the rest of the project—dishing out inflammatory 16s about finessing unfulfilled record deals (“The label needed thirty-five minutes of music“) and the wedges of fandom (“The show is over ni**a, please stop harassing me / Stop asking me, it’s bad enough for me to deal with this tragedy / On my own“).

You guessed it: The Family packs a blitzkrieg 17 records into, well, 35 minutes of runtime—mind you, with as many as ten joints in the bag not even reaching the two minute mark. Everything but the kitchen sink notwithstanding, the off-the-wall raison d’être that has permeated the collective’s MO since its inception seems to take a time-out breather on the subdued and soulful “The Ending“. Dropped just a handful days before release date as conclusive project teaser, the intermezzo is less a fully-fledged single than a semantic coda sermon to BROCKHAMPTON‘s erratic conduct. Sequenced as penultimate offering on the tracklist, sandwiched between the raucous bareness of “My American Life” and their eponymous coda’s blistering prowess, such a concluding triptych makes for a momentous and poignant finishing. Before it, baked somewhere in there is another candid half-hour of heart-on-sleeve primordial soup of boundless hip-hop virtuosity, albeit Abstract-only. At any rate, it’s the last exhibit of a tail end of album drops amounting to as much as any other year top 10’s worth of material, coming to fruition in the last two months of the year alone—if a rising tide lifts all boats…

I’d like to thank you sincerely or taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

CORY BRANAN

WHEN I GO I GHOST

2022, Blue Elan Records

https://www.corybranan.com

CARLY RAE JEPSEN

THE LONELIEST TIME

2022, Interscope Records

https://www.carlyraemusic.com

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN

ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE

2022, Columbia Records

https://brucespringsteen.net

BROCKHAMPTON

THE FAMILY

2022, RCA Records

https://www.brckhmptn.com

CRJ SEASON APPROACHING | 2022-09-01

We love ourselves a well-crafted pop hook around here, and 36-year-old Canadian singer/songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen is certainly no stranger to providing such goods in earnest. On the heels of her last major studio project cycle for the sharp and memorable Dedicated three years ago—followed by its companion cutting room floor batch Dedicated Side B in 2020—the multiple Grammy Awards-nominated Interscope recording artist currently finds herself in the midst of the promotion of her forthcoming sixth LP, The Loneliest Time. Slated to hit the streets on 21st October, the 13-cuts-strong collection of brand new original material has hitherto been teased by two incongruous lead singles, all the while keeping a relatively low-key publicity profile. The Vampire Weekend founder Rostam Batmanglij-produced “Western Wind” dropped as principal taster already back in early May this year, segued in its footsteps by the sugary cautionary date-tale “Beach House” during the peak of summer.

While the former sports a slow-to-mid tempo rhythmic undercurrent and relies on a moody and pensive musical backdrop, Jepsen’s latest offering in time dabbles in a groovier and more upbeat vanity exercise, adorning the self-ironic and sarcastic lyrical ethos laced into the tune. This is a far cry from and in stark contrast to the earthly and spiritual inclinations worked into the laid-back valence of predecessor “Western Wind”: “Comin’ in like a western wind / Do you feel home from all directions? / First bloom, you know it’s spring / Remindin’ me, love, that it’s all connected / What is love? / Comin’ in like a western wind“. The sound duality found as part of the shortlisted two-pack single in anticipation to the full release might be indicative of the full potential range of moods, styles, and flairs embedded within the album—which also sees fellow Canadian singer/songwriter and composer Rufus Wainwright feature on the title track doubling as album closer.

Regardless of the actual musical substance packed into The Loneliest Time, the prospect of a new CRJ project remains an engrossing and mouthwatering one. The second half of her 2010s included an astonishing and brilliant spree of watertight material, centred around her 2015 synth and dance pop perfection Emotion. The studio album was not only a sprawling and irrepressible commercial success, riding on the coattails of iconic global smash hit singles “I Really Like You” and “Run Away With Me“, but it also secured widespread critical acclaim, landing multiple best-of year end lists as well as getting shortlisted for her homeland’s 2016 Polaris Music Prize. Its companion collection of throwaway tunes, simply dubbed Emotion: Side B, followed suit in the form of an 8-track EP one year later, once again plucking countless favourable reviews from critics and getting washed in numerous accolades. Dedicated, Jepsen’s fourth studio LP, dropped in 2019, meeting renewed glowing praise and debuting at number 18 in the USA, marking her third top-twenty album by that point.

Both Dedicated and its ancillary Side B exploit b/w a riveting twelve previously unheard of records found the British Columbia-native uphold the superior bubblegum pop yardstick set by their predecessors, whilst contemporaneously veering more pronouncedly into classic disco territory, lifting and borrowing from a wider and older host of sonic influences such as funk, house, and R&B. You probably guessed it, but once again both efforts gathered continuous adulation and excitement from fans and tastemakers alike, with the principal A-side project getting name-dropped in many year-end lists of best albums of 2019. The Loneliest Time is poised to be her first batch of new material to speak of since then, and will be further supported by CRJ embarking on a highly-anticipated concert leg named The So Nice Tour, set to commence in September this year and scheduled to touch base across the whole of North America.

Be it the analogue and earthy feel of “Western Wind”‘s percussive rudiments interspersed with the airy and hollow guitar solo cued in at 2:20 on the track, or be it the undeniable stickiness of the chorus-to-post chorus combo seeping through newest single “Beach House” (“Boys around the world, I want to believe that / When you chase a girl, it’s not just huntin’ season / I can see the future, say it like you mean it / I got a beach house in Malibu / And I’m probably gonna hurt your feelings“), the platinum-selling artist’s upcoming studio effort is sporting all the right attributes to warrant the grand opening of what is set to be another blistering cycle of pop triumph—coming this fall courtesy of an artist who has never shied away from being her unapologetic self, both on and off stage.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

MR OKLAMA & THE BACKSTEPPERS | 2022-05-22

We might have gotten the album wrong. Conceding that DAMN. lent us all a rock solid hint five years ago, it might well turn out that it was Kendrick Lamar‘s latest fifth full length studio project, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, that was supposed to be listened backwards all along. Back to front. Its tracklist in reverse. Much has been said, taken apart, and dissected about the conscious hip-hop prodigy’s latest exploit over the past seven days, since what was arguably this year’s most highly anticipated mainstream rap moment. Contemplative approaches and critical reviews of the double disc-project by Compton, Los Angeles’ very own involving tenets of specularity, looped circularity, and inside-outness have since abounded in spades—yet no one contributing to the moralist discourse surrounding Oklama‘s swan song Top Dawg Entertainment release appeared to have dared as much as to advance the sustainment of a fully fledged backwards playback experience theory embedded in the very record.

There are of course the more surface-level clues underwriting the universally acclaimed return of the famed pgLang founder, such as the photographic evidentiary exhibit shown below. It discloses and suggests an inverted running order of the two album sides when juxtaposed to the official display-level crediting of the album’s name Mr Morale & The Big Steppers. On the mysterious book-stricken snap, the Grammy Awards and Pulitzer Prize for Music-winning MC clearly places the LP’s alleged B-side, Steppers, on top of the Morale one: a sequencing leitmotiv later confirmed by the record’s official chaptered track listing on digital streaming services as well as K.Dot‘s licensed merch window dressing. Yet another fascinating hint teasing toward a cyclical ethos being laced into the creative experiencing of the work of art at hand is the strikingly symmetrical track structuring around the disc one-to-disc two transition axis (props and kudos to the ever so brilliant Jah Talks Albums for pointing this out, amongst what we’re sure are many more).

Let us feed off this latest ethereal conjecture for a moment. Cut number three on Big Steppers, the linear and incessantly pounding short-of-breathness of “Worldwide Steppers“, is minutely specular to disc two’s other namesake “Mr Morale“, tracklisted no more and no less than three slots away from the apparent album closer—aptly titled, well, “Mirror“. By a similar token, the Kodak Black-helmed “Rich (Interlude)” appears and rings before our eardrums at number six on the front side, and thus three slots away from the aforementioned disc one-to-disc two transition axis, only to be met by the Morale side’s own skit three more steps removed from the shaft (shaped in the form of a two and a half-minute avantgarde chamber pop arrangement, featuring German spiritual teacher and self-help guru Eckhart Tolle and Kung Fu Kenny’s own cousin and protégée Baby Keem). Needless to say, and without breaking protocol, both are followed by their parent flagship instalment along the playback ride: “Rich Spirit” and “Savior“. Thusly, not much of a formatting difference between listening the album front to back, or back to front.

Furthermore, the self-evident insular virtuosity of Mr Morale & The Big Steppers’s reflector coda number “Mirror” stands to irradiate the LP’s artistic agency right back to where it came from, à la auditive recoil. Crucially though, rewinding the tape with the inherent intention and assertiveness of flipping its chronological script on its head, would undoubtedly recount a dourer and more tumultuous voyage for Oklama. If the plastic and hegemonic songwriting motif exhuming from a full frontal listen of the album transcends wages of sin and mercilessness to attain higher spiritual re-alignment via a quasi-complete trauma catharsis and purge, embarking on a listen of Mr Morale & The Big Steppers by actually starting with Mr Morale all the way down to track number one unleashes instead chronicles of a progressively more recidive, mortal, and tormented man. If this sounds familiar to anyone privy to Kendrick Lamar’s previous discography, it’s because it is.

Provided the proposed capsizing, the supposed lectured debuting sense of closure and centeredness (re-)gained by the Black Hippy member while shunning away from the limelight and withering social, political, economical, and public health crises exemplified on “Mirror”—”Do yourself a favor and get a mirror that mirror grievance / Then point it at me so the reflection can mirror freedom“—all of a sudden flickers as a frail, fallen, yet coveted lighthouse to strive toward again, with the hindsight of the eighteen cuts in reverse. Likewise, as soon as 34-year old Mr Duckworth sends us all off with “I grieve different” on the newly conceptualized outro “United In Grief“, the rescued and discharged list of liberated pain-bearers enunciated on the stark and sombre early moment “Mother I Sober“, echoes now less as an appeased trip down victory lap memory lane than the load of what fallible men have the wherewithal of undoing:

So I set free myself from all the guilt that I thought I made
So I set free my mother all the hurt that she titled shame
So I set free my cousin, chaotic for my mother’s pain
I hope Hykeem made you proud ’cause you ain’t die in vain
So I set free the power of Whitney, may she heal us all
So I set free our children, may good karma keep them with God
So I set free the hearts filled with hatred, keep our bodies sacred
As I set free all you abusers, this is transformation

Perhaps the as of this writing yet-to-be-published companion red paperback is to provide us with a definitive settlement pertaining to the premeditated and intended experiential flow of Mr Morale & The Big Steppers. Ideally, that is to be levied upon listeners in a less ironic and self-aware fashion than others have seen fit to bestow. After all, the present essay rests upon rather latent and unspoken assumptions—admittedly not enough to run with the presumption for a universal application. However, what we do know, is that Kung Fu Kenny has hinted at it before. What’s more, across his brilliant suite of artistic oeuvres, he has all but mastered the pocketed deliverance that self-actualization and emancipation aren’t discrete, but rather complex and perturbed journeys. What if the inexplicable post-pandemic and post-personal breakthrough zeitgeist Mr Morale & The Big Steppers is released within reversed the restoration undergone by him in the five years since DAMN.?

As the rapper took to his tried and tested promotional Heart series antics to officialize the long-awaited release of the double LP by dropping the rabid and incendiary “The Heart Part 5” on 8th May, his webhosted parking lot oklama.com quietly got updated with a loose and disordered scatterplot of empty folders on a non-navigable subpage: as if suggesting users be filing them freely and according to their liking (see images below for reference). We understand and appreciate how the associative link to a behavioural theory suggesting that Mr Morale & The Big Steppers oughta be consumed as Mr Morale first and The Big Steppers second, runs fairly brittle. Especially if assuming that there is in fact a correct way of experiencing the record as Kendrick intended it. And yet we ask; how come is there an even more secret sub-root of said subpage cataloguing all cryptic folders in neat grids, including a blacked out folder 327, if not to signify a defiance of appearances whilst adumbrating at a suppressed and abeyant narrative woven into the project’s tracklist? Or should we say, list of tracks?

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

UNTITLED UNRELEASED. | 2022-02-21

We’re practically two months into the new year and still devoid of any conclusive information as to what timeline, shape, or form Kendrick Lamar‘s forthcoming studio project is to take. Which basically marks a whole lustrum since his last—the Pulitzer Prize for Music and Grammy Award-winning magnum opus DAMN. More damagingly, we are now quietly coming up on seven years since the release of one of the 21st Century’s most essential bodies of work, as the 34-year old Compton native graced both mainstream music and contemporary social theory studies alike with To Pimp a Butterly’s unparalleled epistemological substance. Since then, technologies, governments, and diseases have come and gone, and yet the Top Dawn Entertainment MC who now calls himself Oklama has hitherto surrendered little to no hints pertaining to his next big musical statement.

In times when rough draft B-side collections such as his throwaway untitled unmastered. compilation retain more inherent artistic value than most of what’s being glossed and primed on the entertainment frontline, a world surrogated by NFTs and fifth vaccination jabs is in excruciatingly dire need of a new Kendrick Lamar project. Sure, there was his ‘at service’ pgLang transmedia company announcement a few years back. Then a handful of microwaved slim picking mentions in outlets of varying credibility. One has but to decrypt the tea leaves to realize that juncture is overtly ripe for K.Dot to sculpt and place a new societal lighthouse. As distributed and hypernormalized social textures implode underneath the inertia of a post-structural world, the closest antidote to a panacea of all said ills would embody the likeness of the coloured canvass that only he could crystallize.

Don’t take it from us, but turn to one of Lamar’s most promising and minutely defined rap disciples, Chicago’s very own Saba, who just weeks ago took one for the whole team and rendered his personal introspective account of a cross-generational journey coasting through maturation, grief, and repentance on his spectacular third full length conscious hip-hop helping Few Good Things. Albeit infused and informed by different compelling events across incongruous geographical latitudes, the Pivot Gang‘s co-founder reduction of distilled socio-ethnical errands, coupled with the undercurrent of an inevitable splash of survivor’s remorse, orbits around the same solar system that birthed wise-beyond-their-years coming-of-age chronicles such as Kung Fu Kenny’s good kid, m.A.A.d city and the aforementioned TPAB. We’ll take Few Good Things for now, but Kendrick going another full year without dropping would entail catastrophic consequences.

Authors and tastemakers are crumbling under a similar pressure. The near embarrassing proliferation of retrospective album reviews, video essays, and pleas for release involving the most revered Black Hippy member’s discography of late is proof. Most recent in this slew of saturated accounts is a whole entire official podcast season dedicated to the ideation and production of TPAB, courtesy of Spotify’s exclusive podcast series The Big Hit Show; involving a who’s who of auteurs and contributors shaping the work of art that went on to win, inter alia, the Best Rap Album prize at the 2016 Grammy Awards. Shockingly, given its hosting platform donors, the show is underwhelming and reductive at best—nonetheless it stands to denote how pronounced our current lack of new Kendrick Lamar alimentation really is.

Inconveniently enough for our zeitgeist’s re-aligning wellness, pgLang came out of the woodwork to spoil some of the anticipatory thrill apropos a new and still untitled Kendrick Lamar album at the beginning of the year, as it revealed the production of a live-action comedy film jointly with Paramount Pictures to begin in the spring. The theatrical collaboration is set to include South Park honchos Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and Vernon Chatman, with its plot ellipsing around a Black man’s tribulations whilst working as a slave re-enactor at a living history museum. Either Oklama manages to cut all the musical God’s nectar he needs to bundle, package, and manufacture his fifth studio LP before April, or else we might be in for another agonizing, this time somewhat ‘justified’, wait for an updated map for the lost.

So here’s to Kendrick Lamar quenching this mean old world’s thirst before long. For despite love, loss, and grief have disturbed his and our comfort zone, the glimmers of God speak through his music and family. While the world around him and us evolves, we reflect on what matters the most. The life in which his words will land next. As he produces ‘his final TDE album’, we know he feels joy to have been a part of such a cultural imprint after seventeen years. The struggles. The success. And most importantly, the brotherhood. May the Most High continue to use Top Dawg Entertainment as a vessel for candid creators. As Kendrick Lamar continues to pursue his life’s calling. There’s beauty in complexion. And always faith in the unknown.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

A BARN’S CRAZY OLD HORSE | 2021-12-13

No Interweb argonaut under the sun needs any further thinkpiece or featured essay on anything to do with legendary and God-like status singer/songwriter Neil Young. The 76-year-old Canadian-American Grammy and Juno Awards winner has successfully been conducting a prolific and accomplished recorded musical career for over fifty years now, has put out around fifty studio albums depending on how one counts, and can probably tally up articles, reviews, and profiles about him in the thousands at this point. Gentleman’s got content under his cowboy belt—whether that’s auditory wavelengths captured, fixated to medium, and dished out first-handedly by Young himself, or shelled by the wider “villain” media and entertainment lunar system, the sheer critical mass of information readily available about the glorious Crazy Horse bandleader is pretty much countless.

What’s certain is that this is not the right place to find an objective, lineage-faithful, enduring, or even chronicling literary pièce de résistance on the former Crosby, Stills & Nash-affiliate. Instead, much like previous instalments hitting this neck of the webwood, the presently unfolding before your very eyes sets out to be a rather short, straightforward, passionate, and biased two cents-container attempting at making head or tails of yet another sublimely mesmerizing and thoroughly compelling late-into-the-calendar-year, early December alt-folk outing for the ages. Whilst admittedly being taken aback and left disarmed by the whole notion of a new Neil Young & Crazy Horse collection of original tracks to begin with, the rootsy collective’s fourteenth studio album to date Barn materialized as a low-key two for two for the Ontario-native musician, following in the outstanding spiritual footsteps of last year’s re-exhumed Homegrown.

While clearly ontologically fungible from the above hypothetical continuing field of comparison on account of the not-so-insignificant addition of Young’s iconic and larger-than-life backing band Crazy Horse—which after inordinate amounts of line up changes both imposed and by design, in 2021 responds to the names of Billy Talbot on bass, Ralph Molina on drums, and former E Street Band six-string fixture Nils Lofgren—barring a few live re-issues in-between the two projects, Barn represents the official successor to Homegrown for all intents and purposes (which in turn, mind you, was actually recorded in the mid 1970s). In many ways akin to the latter in its nonchalant low-fidelity woven into straight up memorable songwriting immediacy, this latest Volume Dealers-produced LP came out on Warner Music’s Reprise Records on 10th December, and can be further unpacked, dissected, and experienced on the folk rock heavyweight’s brilliant digital Archives service.

At the risk of sounding microwaved and self-evident, a communal musical undercurrent to all ten cuts on this thing is their off-the-cuff, pulsating, (other)wordly, if haphazard ethos: admittedly not always working to the record’s presentation and packaging favour (one can’t but irritatedly fret at how unsanitized, butchered, and abrupt the fade out outros on “Canerican” and “Shape of You” ring), there is a sharp ‘in the moment’ sewing through the album’s tapestry. Much of this sweaty and stoic oomph could undoubtedly be attributed to the rustic and rural recording sessions and their live take approach, taking place in, well, a barn skewed deep into the soil in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Reflecting the very edifice’s rudimentary, leaky, and perforated architectural layout, these songs sound simultaneously like the best version possible of a rough draft demo and as polished and glossy a taping round could get in such a dusty and austere environment. If there ever was an album in 2021 for which overused and gentrified attributes such as earthy and organic could be stitched to, then it’s Barn.

In spite of his best efforts to balance it all out for the heretic master compressions required by skimpy contemporary digital streaming services, Young’s voice is barely audible when buried in the EQ and mixing on fierce rockier standout “Heading West” or even the defiant blues-soaked “Change Ain’t Never Gonna“, giving listeners the impression they oughta move closer to the stereo PAs funnelling the vocals to properly make out what’s being sung. Modern sound engineering 101 breaches notwithstanding, such an idiosyncrasy directly adds to the record’s charm, mystique, and charisma, poetically annulling sterilized barriers of gatekeeping control exercised by today’s means of music distribution. The fact of the matter remains: this album—and above all its recording—is flawed, spotty, but grand, looking a little too sonically obfuscated and muffled to lure in casual Zoomer listeners, but emanating too much intention and earnestness to be written off by musical savants. Not unlike the very wooden angular barn depicted on the project’s front cover.

There exists lots on this full length that is perhaps purposefully left to mystical imagination, such as a subdued yet clearly registerable nod to Young’s storied creative kinship with Pearl Jam (the aforementioned “Canerican”‘s clawed opening riff tastefully recalls that of the grunge giants’ smash hit single “Alive“). Meanwhile, the record’s tail end is a pure sight for romantic eyes, with “Tumblin’ Thru The Years“, “Welcome Back“, and “Don’t Forget Love” all supplying boundless degrees of unconditional tender and elliptical daydreaming, one after another, rarely dared to display in the mainstream. It’s genuinely hard to imagine a seasoned and surly old man pushing eighty—of Young’s caliber, no less—melt like Swiss cheese over lyrics such as: “When you’re angry and you’re lashing out, don’t forget love / You don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t forget love / When the wind blows through the crime scene and the TV man starts talking fast, don’t forget love“.

Lest this goes unnoticed: pretty much every composition on Barn sports but a handful of chord changes throughout itself, and any additional bell and whistle fleshing out the necessary meat on each song’s bone clocks in as nothing more than instinctive and captivating instrumental improvisation (case in point, the beautiful intermezzos of the formidable “Welcome Back”). They say growing old bestows perspective, wisdom, and tranquility upon the bearer, and in Neil Young’s case—and crucially on Barn—such a rite-of-passage appeared to have translated into a confident back to basics approach. Everything from the songwriting, to the innocent topical focus, through to the undeniable stickiness of some of the hooks, sounds dated, evergreen, and entropic in nature at the same time. Mr Young might be an old man by now, but he sure has been first and last, nimble enough to look at how the time goes past, ascertaining that he might still be all alone at last: ultimately rolling home to his true inner self.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

TWELVE GOING OVER | 2021-10-14

The idea of bonus tracks in recorded music has always been both an intriguing and polarising one, historically affording somewhat uncalled for opinions coming from a plethora of stakeholders and contributors in the wider music space. Everyone from fans to critics and artists themselves seem to hold moderately loaded mixed bag stances on the notion of bundling non-album cuts as part of deluxe, or expanded, versions of studio LPs. Their modes of employment might just be as varied and versatile as the opinions they go sprout, as both songs originally left on the cutting room floor, as well as alternate versions of tracks included in the main full length tracklist (spearheaded by acoustic and live re-takes), have habitually found themselves getting second lives breathed as part of single B-sides, territorially-bound album versions, celebratory anniversary reissues, and more recently optimised digital streaming economy unit economics.

Despite quite literally ‘not making the cut’ on whatever final incarnation a full body of work translated into, artists old and new (and, crucially, their sly record labels) have long been known to be stoking alternate ways of stitching superfluous bonus tracks on top of some physical or digital variation of packaging for their official projects. English singer/songwriter Sam Fender, who recently unveiled his second studio album Seventeen Going Under on Polydor Records, saw fit to dilute his nominal 11-track album version through five additional records, sequenced on the so-called 16-cut Deluxe version of his critically acclaimed Bramwell Bronte-produced outing. This is per se nothing under the sun new for the 27-year-old North Shields native, who had hitherto widely flirted with both intra-LP-cycles non-album tracks (see 2018’s EP Dead Boys, or singles such as “Millennial“, “Greasy Spoon“, and “Hold Out“) as well as bonus offerings on fully fledged studio LPs (case in point, the live rendition of “Use” on his debut LP Hypersonic Missiles).

However, Fender’s latest curatorial choice in time affords us the weird and wonderful opportunity to decouple the faux-embedded five-track EP stacked across tracks 12 and 16 on top of the sonic gesamtkunstwerk represented by the Seventeen Going Under Deluxe version. Instead of embarking onto the conventional highway of reviewing the real record Sam intended listeners and year end’s list to appraise, we’re shifting gears to zero in on the throwaways; the fat that was supposed to be cut. Starting with the mystically hypnotising glazed tenderness of “Better Of Me“, sequenced at number twelve on the revamped tracklist, a softly blistering cry of monolithic matter-of-fact earnestness espoused with unambitious allegoric poetry: “And I hated you / I was so jealous of your standin’ / And I envied your happy family / Oh, I looked like shit / Stuck in all my vice rotations / Tryna’ find light in every broken soul“. Easily one of Fender’s most out-there ‘experimental’ outings to date, the song dabbles in both sampled loop tapestry and one-dimensional syncopated drumming, to render a bona fide moment of cathartic implosion.

The following careless and lighthearted “Pretending That You’re Dead” is a successful exercise in pure The River-era Springsteen-meets-Smiths worship, complete with unadulterated ‘end of the world’ lyrics and seas of chorus-effected guitar licks that don’t quite seem to want to give the tune any melodic respite. Meanwhile, the sheer forlorn weight of the brilliant “Angel In Lothian” sits at number fourteen on the deluxe project, fiercely distributing heart-wrenching accounts on awarding the number one prize for the most ruthless sabotage to one’s very self: “And I claw at the door every bad night / But somehow it’s blocked from thе other side / I claw ’til my skin comes apart / Until I feel something“. Out of all five bonus tracks making up this crop, this is hands down the one that should have made the official record—both for reasons of focused thematic addressability and watertight musical delivery.

Penultimate offering “Good Company” aptly showcases the barer and starker nuance of the widespread acclaimed heartland rock artist, conveyed through a relatively impressive lullaby-esque handpicked arpeggio, sped up to such an extent where one can’t but admire the awe-inspiring muscular elasticity of the performer’s fingers. Although a tad underdeveloped—lest we forget, these are records Fender did not find worthy of his main course offering—lyrically the song sticks out for its emotional and assertive ambivalence, with Sam caught drowning under the blank bullets of the existential crossfire that comes with some degree of acceptance of the duality of man. If anything, it acts as a necessary wind down from the prior aguishly dense full hour of music, segueing into the conclusive piano-led “Poltergeist“, an introspective ballad pulling the curtains over the roller coasting one-man ethics errands show that just preceded it, with some of the most evocative and poignant vocal passages on the whole record: “I haven’t been the best of men / Morality is an evolving thing / I can blame the times, I can blame the weeks / I can blame the things that we saw as kids / I’m a waster darling, and I’ll tell it straight / With all my failures on a platе / She picks at them and doesn’t chеw / And spits them out for me to view“.

Be it the darlings that were never properly killed, file them under a philosophical approach on the quantum physics notion of God’s particle, or lace them into a Lacan’ian theory of inverse psychoanalysis—some might argue that aside from allowing and affording the true enjoyment of the main musical oeuvre to begin with, Fender’s ‘hidden’ EP within Seventeen Going Under inherently stands as a significantly deserving little project of its own. These renegade cuts, more than ever before in the English act’s still relatively infant discography, stand to signify the wide-reaching and holistic songcraft prowess of one of the UK’s biggest musical prodigal sons. By creating a superalbum of sorts, Fender managed to turn his sophomore full length into a meta ‘project of projects’, simultaneously upholding and defining the curtailing confines of conventional music release formats. Much like Erwing Schrödinger’s cat experiment in quantum mechanics, Seventeen Going Under is both eleven and sixteen tracks long, and its boundless enjoyment (or distaste) ought not be attained in spite of the five extra bonus tracks, but precisely because of the inclusion of the excessive bells and whistles.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

RATHER THAN NEBRASKA, PRESSURE MACHINE IS THE KILLERS’ TUNNEL OF LOVE | 2021-09-10

As first reactions and reviews of The Killers’ seventh studio LP Pressure Machine started to reel in, shortly after the record’s release date in mid August, many a critics and fans were quick to draw uncompromising parallels between said project and Bruce Springsteen‘s Nebraska. One would be doomed to fault them—the creative and spiritual surface-level similitudes between the two albums abound in spades. For starters, both full-lengths sound bare, dour, and austere, and sit adjacently to one of each respective act’s bigger, louder, and more mainstream outings to date—that is, 1984’s Born in the USA for Springsteen and last year’s Imploding the Mirage as far as the Las Vegas quartet is concerned.

Moreover, on a thematic level, apparent bona fide heartland rock and its derived blue-collar sensibilities permeate both projects’ lyrical menageries from cradle to grave, and while this is not anything new for either artist, the executional earnestness and intention of both Nebraska and Pressure Machine are peak career-level for both. Notwithstanding a creative je ne sais quois ethos pledging allegiance to full blown electric arena rock instrumentation as their trademark modus operandi, these two records and their wall-to-wall unplugged, reverberated, and acoustic tapestries seem to stick out like sore thumbs in each artist’s wider discography.

Pernickety and rambunctious thinkpiecers and fact-diggers need little time to push parallels even further, to the point of stressing out how both 1982’s storied Nebraska and this year’s Pressure Machine saw the light of day at the dawn of what would be poised to be a volatile and erratic decade to come: without clear winners or losers, and soaked amidst new technological frontiers enthralling and deranging folks in equal measure. Not to mention the comparisons drawn between both records being—loosely speaking—’concept albums’ about the good, the bad, and the evil of modern ordinary, down-on-their-luck working class anti-heroes, sparing no mention of sins and unredeemable qualities.

Now for the juicy bit, ladies and gentlemen—contrary to public opinion, we instead maintain that rather than Nebraska, Pressure Machine is The Killers’ very own Tunnel of Love, aka the Boss’ cherished eight studio album (1987). We stand to defend such assertion through a multitude of deductions and derivative clues, ranging from face-value chassis to low-level musical dissections and presumptions. At the risk of overthinking and exceedingly intellectualise the creative process engraved at the heart of both albums, we’ll go as far as to unpack each single record sequenced on the Las Vegas quartet’s bundle, and bring forward educated hypotheses as to what their companion spiritual Tunnel of Love pieces are.

Humour us on some documentarist archival trivia first. For Christ’s sake: look no further than the two album’s front covers (reported below) and the evident color scheming and wireframing they share. Would the communal traits start and end here, this would obviously be a non-starter on account of how many other albums sleeves share similar flairs and iconographies. Let us look at both records’ runtimes then—a field of comparison that should win over the curiosity of most. Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love clocks in at exactly 46:25 minutes, while the abridged (i.e. the non-spoken interludes and skits version) duration of Pressure Machine comes eerily close at 46:19 (!). We’re talking negligible differences of a mere six seconds across full length projects featuring twelve and eleven tracks, respectively (Nebraska instead only plays for 40 minutes).

Speaking of which—delving into the collections of songs laced into both LPs, the non-inclusion of the New Jersey prodigal son’s “Ain’t Got You” as part of this pound-for-pound creative appraisal is the sole concession we’re humbly asking from our dear readers, which we’re sure you’ll oblige. With its humorous and faux-bragging a cappella demeanour, coasting atop of a minimalistic and one-dimensional analogue tapestry, not only does the Tunnel of Love sound like a fish out of water amidst the sincerity and heart-on-sleeve vulnerability of the subsequent eleven numbers, but the songwriting at the core of its tune is nothing to write home about either, frankly.

We’ll cut to the chase: Pressure Machine’s first track “West Hills“‘s sombre, waltzy, and granite appeal could easily be equated to “Tougher Than the Rest“, incidentally the opening cut on an analytical Tunnel of Love minus “Ain’t Got You” too. Conversely, the jollier and softer stylistic undertones of subsequent album lead single “Quiet Town” are not too far removed from the incisive impact of Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise“, especially as both songs wrestle with darker and more dour lyrical textures juxtaposed to the easier on the ear instrumentation. Meanwhile, the stark and naked acoustic strumming of the unplugged “Terrible Thing” has got to make it Pressure Machine’s very own “Cautious Man“—easily the most bare bone stripped back offering on Tunnel of Love.

Bear with us, as we continue to ask for a certain degree of mental elasticity and artistic openness. Are the vocal cadences, angular sonic dynamics, and overall compositional structures of “Cody” not somewhat reminiscent of those in “Walk Like a Man“? The similitudes here are not the uncanniest under the sun, but they’re definitely there when listening closely enough. Even more striking are the percussive and harmonic parallels between “Sleepwalker” and the title track on the Boss’s album though. Beyond the subtle mutual melodic nods, try to pay specific attention to the rhythmic pockets between 1:09-1:43 on the former and 0:58-1:35 on the latter. Not talking about actual beats and rudiments, but rather grooves, patterns, and tightness.

Elsewhere on Pressure Machine, the Phoebe Bridgers-assisted folklore troubadour lullaby “Runaway Horses” and its shtick would in many ways sit quite at home placed back-to-back to the inflections and cadences heard on “When You’re Alone“, would it not? Moving on from there; absent the just ever so slightly increased BPM rate, track seven on Pressure Machine “In the Car Outside“—undoubtedly one of the stickier and melodically riper tunes this side of the heartland fence—is not necessarily miles away from the gelid synth tapestries, melancholic paratexts, and exaggeratedly lingering instrumental outro similarly sported by “Two Faces“. What we mean is that these two tracks sound like they just shine the same light.

By a similar token, the Las Vegas band’s frontman Brandon Flowers’ verse delivery and intonations on album standout “In Another Life“, sequenced at number eight on Pressure Machine, seem to recall in large parts the auditory rendering of the moral voluptuousness of “All That Heaven Will Allow“—both deep cuts’ unclothed and one-dimensional simplicity underline more than one lowest common denominator. Meanwhile, when decoupled from their apparent musical shells and boiled down to the narrating arc of their inertia-driven linear storytelling ethos, The Killers’ incredible “Desperate Things” (incidentally the most Nebraska-esque Killers helping to date) and Springsteen’s “Spare Parts” ring as if they could have genuinely sprouted from the same writing session.

Next thing we know, we’re nearing the end of Pressure Machine’s side B and runtime as a whole, as a result of our ambitious and pretentious intellectualisation. One could say we reserved the best for last, as The Killers’ gentle, tender, and pretty title track, with its soft and cradling arpeggio and elliptical trajectory, is nothing if not The Boss’ “One Step Up“s legitimate and groomed daughter. Closing number “The Getting By” (NB: clocking in at 5:10) represents the ultimate grand finale of references, both on a musical and empirical level. When paired up with Tunnel of Love’s own curtain call “Valentine’s Day” (NB: 5:12 minutes long), their dialled-down groove and idyllic six-string work are almost too close for comfort, making both tunes mutually interchangeable without impacting either album’s flow.

Listen, we’re in no way suggesting The Killers did this on purpose. We’re fully aware that some of the analogies presented above are more reliable and valid than others. Some of them certainly come off as a bit of a stretch. But most of the facts and figures illustrated above speak for themselves. Forget not, this has got to be seen as part of a creative continuum where musicians are constantly borrowing from each other’s work. Where they’re getting inspired and influenced by previous musical references and artistic milestones. One where they’re often, consciously or unconsciously, paying both tribute and worship to past beacons of theirs. Brandon Flowers and his band are no strangers to admitting to adoring and borrowing from the generous sounds of The Boss: after several albums on which their Nevada glittery gloss lent them a glamorous façade, the pressure of their American songwriting machine finally caught up on them.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV

IN DEFENSE OF CHRIS LORD-ALGE’S MIX OF THE REPLACEMENTS’ DON’T TELL A SOUL | 2021-08-15

Minneapolis, MN alternative rock giants The Replacements released seven studio albums during their active lifetime as a band throughout the Eighties. It comes probably as no surprise that the front end of their discography—culminating with their legendary back-to-back triplet that transitioned them onto major label stardom, Let It Be (1984), Tim (1985), and Pleased to Meet Me (1987)—is commonly and widely considered to be their musical and creative apex, by both high and low-brow listeners alike. There is also little denying of the fact that a specular widespread fan consensus over their last two full length outings, 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul and the following year’s swan song All Shook Down (basically a proto-Paul Westerberg solo helping), is somewhat lukewarm and nothing to write home about, at best.

Here’s the catch: hoarding broad-brush critical agreement never pushed the envelope of stoked human progress. However, speaking of broad brushes, more than revisiting and reclaiming entire parts of The Mats’ overall recorded studio output—which incidentally is completed a raft of additional live albums, compilation bundles, and EPs—this piece looks to rewrite history for on one particular project. Or rather still, its hitherto tainted, jagged, and misunderstood legacy.

Such zeroed-in record answers to the name of the aforementioned Don’t Tell a Soul: an 11-track album initially released on 1st February 1989 on Warner Music’s Sire Records. It’s The Replacements’ sixth, and the first ever featuring lead guitarist Bob “Slim” Dunlap on tape, who was called up in lieu of late and disgraced founding member Bob Stinson in early 1987. Now, before delving irreparably into the nooks and crannies of the argumentation here, at this stage it should probably be mentioned how this album did in actuality fare largely favourably with both music critics and the mainstream at the time.

For Christ’s sake—according to trusted sources including the documentary The Replacements: Color Me Obsessed, Don’t Tell a Soul still stands as the band’s biggest selling LP to date. Which is something that makes a featured thinkpiece set out to defend it and its glossy sound engineering such as this one all the more logically frail. Yet anytime The Replacements, their commitment to self-derangement, and their larger-than-life looming indie lore come into the foray, logic and rationality always kind of seem to default to getting thrown out of a conceptual window.

Remember the raft of additional live albums, compilation bundles, and EPs that help beef up and ornament The Mats’ lauded discography on top of their seven studio LPs? Well, glad you do—for it turns out that one of the most recent issues as part of said catalogue is an ambitious four-disc, 60-track box set filed under the title Dead Man’s Pop. It was earmarked, manufactured, and distributed in 2019 by Rhino Entertainment, under the careful curatorial supervision of the band’s biographer Bob Mehr as well as a slew of syrupy Warner execs. Crucially, the collection’s first disc is entirely comprised of a remixed, re-arranged, and re-sequenced version of Don’t Tell a Soul.

Colloquially dubbed the Don’t Tell a Soul Redux, this overhauled and reimagined collection of tracks both sprouted and harvested from raw session mixes by the album’s original producer (albeit not final mixing engineer) Matt Wallace—who was pretty much a nameless, faceless indie bloke at the time. These stood in sharp contrast to the subsequent major label-endorsed mixing work and production carried out by 80s engineering royalty and multi-Grammy Awards-winning Chris Lord-Alge, whose pedigree and portfolio read like a greatest hits list of names of that decade (Tina Turner, Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna).

Therefore, far from a nostalgic and self-indulgent collector’s item, Dead Man’s Pop’s inherent revisiting flair ended up pulling out all the archival stops, except becoming an actual 30th-year anniversary reissue of Don’t Tell a Soul. For one, it’s completed by a slate of additional bundles, starting with a second disc of rarities and non-album cuts billed We Know the Night: Rare and Unreleased, collating early versions of rough drafts from the group’s Don’t Tell a Soul studio sessions, as well as late-night drunken collaborations recorded with storied singer/songwriter Tom Waits. Two final batches of tracks attached to the box set combine to form a full live album titled The Complete Inconcerated Live, expanding on the quartet’s eponymous 1989 promotional EP.

Now for the aggravating bit, ladies and gentlemen: multiple sources (as well as the horse’s very own mouth) claim that such a rush of new-found curatorial blood to the head was motivated by principal songwriter, co-founder, and creative mastermind Paul Westerberg’s fundamental dissatisfaction with their original product released thirty years ago. A reckoning that translates into the epiphany that Paul himself, bassist Tommy Stinson, stickman Chris Mars, and Slim Dunlap—in addition to countless fans around the globe—had had to coexist and wrestle with such a profound juxtapositional ethos as they looked back on their best selling album for over three decades. Pretty on brand for The Mats, if you ask us. Let that sink in for a moment.

This still leaves us at the mercy of a discursive place acknowledging how the band, its closest entourage, its devoted and diehard fans, as well as most of the critical ivory tower leagues rallied together in solidarity begging for ‘another chance’. They all convened and called for The Replacements to take another stab at the true work of art that lurked beneath Don’t Tell a Soul’s surface level polish and uptight elegance. In this respect, look no further than group’s frontman Paul Westerberg going as far as stating that “[the record] sounded good until the label brought in people to mix it to make it sound like everything else on the radio”. Elsewhere, so Wallace in retrospect: “At the time, when the mixing […] was completed, I had numerous musician friends who were rabid fans of The Replacements and each one […] accused me of ‘ruining The Replacements’”.

Yet again on the other side of this raison d’être inquisition lie folks such as yours truly—evidently allied with hundreds of thousands of disposable income-owners and unit-movers—who are struggling to make heads or tails of such a tardive and, frankly, spoilt creative undoing. This is done while hastily pointing at selected stems (requesting exhibit ”Asking Me Lies“), flat out superior songwriting-to-tape on key tunes (requesting exhibits “They’re Blind” and “Anywhere’s Better Than Here“), a more cohesive overall listen and tracklisting (requesting exhibit “I Won’t“), as well as BVs that actually enhance a composition rather than jeopardise it (requesting exhibit “We’ll Inherit the Earth“), to humbly will-whisper into existence a trialling accompanied by the following sentence: the original 1989 Don’t Tell a Soul is a better album. Period.

Your honours, isn’t this the part where we would take it upon ourselves to analyse and dissect individual clues to further cement and corroborate similar claims? Should we, though? Instead, one could surely begin with stressing out how no one involved in the conception of the record, from Paul himself to higher-ups at the label, was or is a foolish impulsive decision-maker actively pursuing a high-budget product’s kneecapping. Certainly, one has got to surrender their self-centrism and loosen their tie and trust the process here—yet perhaps more importantly embrace the notion that the band, its management, and the underlying business that supports and profits from it must’ve arrived at the decision to enrol Chris Lord-Alge on mixing duties carefully and considerably.

Yes, of course the irony of lining up signifiers such as management, business, and profit next to a band like The Replacements all in one sentence is not lost on us. Yet we humbly ask: has a sly and red herring-y knack for a dorky and naive smoke and mirrors facade not always been The Mats’ divisive modus operandi all along their blistering career? What if Dead Man’s Pop and its apparent long-overdue redemptive fanfare—finally cancelling alleged wrongs committed at the height of the group’s major label career—were all yet another sublime con-job sculpted by Paul and co. to mock industry and fanbase alike? What if we all chose to believe that the original version of this album is The Replacements’ second career act’s pièce de résistance? No matter the real answer—Mr Westerberg would not want us to tell a single soul anyway.

I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.

AV